Texas A&M took another step toward leaving the Big 12 on Thursday, formally telling the conference it was exploring all its options.
Less than a week after publicly expressing interest in joining the SEC, Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said in a letter to conference Commissioner Dan Beebe that it shouldn't be considered notice that the Aggies have already decided to leave.
"As I have indicated previously, we are working very deliberately to act in the best long-term interests of both Texas A&M and the State of Texas," Loftin said in a statement released by the university. "This truly is a 100-year decision. While we understand the desire of all parties to quickly reach a resolution, these are extremely complex issues that we are addressing methodically."
Loftin received authority from the board of regents to take any action he deems necessary in terms of realignment on Aug. 15, a day after the SEC said it was happy with its current 12-school membership but left the door open to expansion. The SEC declined comment Thursday.
If Texas A&M leaves the Big 12, the move could create a shake-up across college sports. In 2010, Texas considered offers to join the Big Ten and the Pac 10 before deciding to stay in the Big 12. Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) left the Big 12 in July.
Beebe said the Big 12 board of directors will discuss the letter.
"It remains our strong desire for Texas A&M to continue as a member of the Big 12 and we are working toward that end," Beebe said in a statement. "However, if it is decided otherwise, the conference is poised to move aggressively with options."
Loftin said last week that he first approached SEC Commissioner Mike Slive on July 21 about Texas A&M's interest in the SEC. He also said the Aggies would consider what their departure would mean for the future of the Big 12 before making any decisions.
Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said he supports Loftin's "desire to explore all options" concerning the future of the university.
"We all want what is best for the Aggies," Byrne said in a statement released by the school. "I've met with all of our head coaches to keep them informed and we all remain excited and optimistic about the future of Texas A&M athletics."
In the letter, Loftin asked that the conference outline the process Texas A&M should follow if it decides to leave. Loftin said if the Aggies leave, they would want to do it in a way that complies with league bylaws and supports efforts to seek a new member of the conference. The school would presumably face some kind of exit fee.
Loftin has said financial consequences will certainly factor into any decision A&M makes about its future.
The Big 12, including Texas A&M, agreed to a 13-year television deal with Fox Sports in April worth more than $1 billion. There is a chance the contract could be voided if the Aggies leave the conference, which could lead to legal issues for Texas A&M and its new league.
On Thursday, Loftin reiterated Texas A&M's reasoning for looking to move conferences.
"Ultimately, we are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," Loftin said. "As a public university, Texas A&M owes it to the state's taxpayers to maximize our assets and generate additional revenues both now and well into the future."
Some are worried what a departure by A&M would mean for the future of the Aggies' annual football game against Texas, a rivalry dating back to 1894. Loftin has said he hopes they could continue the game even if Texas A&M leaves the Big 12.
"We would love to see A&M in the conference," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. "(But) if they feel they have to go, we wish them the very best."
If the Aggies leave the Big 12, there would be plenty of interest from other schools to fill their spot in the conference. SMU is a school that has publicly expressed interest in joining the Big 12. The Mustangs want to join an automatic qualifying BCS conference and believe the Big 12 would be the best fit.
"We thought the timing was right," athletic director Steve Orsini said about SMU's desire to join a BCS conference. "We're ready to sell and move wherever that may take us. Our jobs at SMU are to continue to promote and strive for excellence in everything we do. So in athletics, the excellence level is being part of an automatic qualifying BCS conference."
The Big 12's BCS status is the biggest draw for the Mustangs, but Orsini said getting to play old rivals from the Southwest Conference also makes the Big 12 a great option.
"Regional rivalries are really what sets college athletics apart," he said. "It's the fans that make the rivalries. In Dallas we have alumni from all over the region as far as institutions — Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma — and these people work together side by side ... how great would it be to rekindle the regional rivalries around that water cooler? That would make the (automatic qualifying) conference in our region, currently the Big 12, very attractive to us to reach our goal."
The Mustangs play in Conference USA and Orsini said that the conference is trying to become an automatic qualifying conference, and that SMU would be happy staying in the league if it is able to achieve that status.